Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Coral Fights Back Against Warming Seas

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 4:01 AM PST

Different colonies of Acropora hyacinthus, one species examined by the Stanford team, showed different levels of heat tolerance depending on which pool they were in.

In the world of coral reefs, most of the news is pretty gloomy. Rising ocean temperatures have led to massive die-offs from Indonesia to Florida; emissions-driven acidity could dissolve corals' structure-building ability in 20 years; rising sea levels threaten to block sunlight even from healthy reefs; and in November NOAA called on Congress to afford endangered species status to over 60 species. A blunt, unsparing editorial in the Times this summer slathered on the melodrama: Coral reefs are being pushed "into oblivion... there is no hope."

Coral are not exactly the most dynamic animals in the ocean: They take decades to grow and are then rooted at the mercy of their environment, so they don't inspire much confidence when it comes to adapting to climate change. But a study out Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science from a group of Stanford geneticists suggests that coral might have more of a fighting spirit than we gave them credit for.

In 2000, ecologist Dan Barshis was with a research group in American Samoa, wading through tide pools, when he noticed that coral in some pools seemed healthy, despite being bathed in water much warmer than corals can normally survive, and despite the fact that individuals of the very same species were on their deathbeds in pools just down the beach. Corals get stressed when water temperatures rise, especially when it happens quickly; under enough stress, they'll boot out the symbiotic algae that photosynthesize sunlight for the coral's food and give the coral its signature color palette, leaving the coral pale—hence the term "bleaching"—and starving.

underwater lab
An experimental transplant setup where Steve Palumbi, Dan Barshis, and coauthor Francois Seneca moved corals from the moderate pool into the more extreme pool and vice versa to investigate whether all corals can acquire increased stress tolerance in the more extreme pool. Photo by Dan Griffin-GG Films

But the coral Barshis saw looked inexplicably happy, and over the next several years he found that the reason why is all about training. Barshis compared the genes of the heat-resistant corals and their more fragile bretheren under a range of water temperatures. He found that, in both groups, heat changed the way hundreds of genes were expressed. But in the heat-resistant group, 60 of these genes were flipped on all the time, and helping to crank out heat-resilient proteins and antioxidants. Using records of the pools' temperatures, Barshis found that the strongest corals came from pools that were consistently but briefly exposed to high temperatures during low tides over time. He thinks the repeated exposure helped condition the corals to build up their tolerance, like an athlete building endurance through weight training, only on the level of DNA.

"It kinda comes down to what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he says.

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On Sea Level Rise, More Experts Lean Toward High End

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 12:47 PM PST
Flooding on the Virginia coast.

If you want to imagine what the future, climate-changed world will look like, one of the biggest questions is by how much, exactly, the sea levels will increase. Rising tides have already become one of the most prominent climate change impacts, threatening coastal communities from Virginia to Palau and amplifying the damage of storms like Sandy. Estimates vary: 2007's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report pegged the figure at somewhere around a foot by 2100, while a December study from NOAA went as high as 6.6 feet. But a swath of recent studies put the estimate at around three feet, including a report out Sunday in Nature Climate Change. From NBC:

Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science. 

Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.

"The consequences are horrible," Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study, [said].

While efforts to stem the rising sea, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, are always worth pursuing, in light of the mounting evidence for large-scale changes it seems prudent for more coastal cities to take a lead from places like New York and start preparing for a closer coastline.

VIDEO: Hiking the 1,700-Mile Keystone Pipeline "Trail"

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 4:01 AM PST

"I live a pretty unconventional life," Ken Ilgunas tells me, speaking over Skype from a community library in Marion, Kansas. It's a typical understatement for Ilgunas, who has the kind of ultra-low-key demeanor one acquires after many nights in the backcountry by oneself. In September, after a year of minimalist living in his van, Ilgunas, 29, was on the hunt for a new adventure. He'd been following the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, heard stories of the landscapes it could jeopardize, and decided the best thing to do would be to go see the thing first-hand. So in September, he found a State Department map, strapped on a pair of good hiking boots, hitchhiked to Canada, and started walking the 1,700-mile route the pipe, if built, will take from the tar sands to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. He expects to finish his journey mid-February; along the way he's encountered frigid cold, charging moose, cows (lots of cows), and plenty of folks who want to keep the pipe out of their backyards.

A Hidden Climate Win in the Fiscal Deal

| Fri Jan. 4, 2013 11:10 AM PST

In the midst of this week's fiscal cliff hullabaloo, with tax hikes for many Americans, tax breaks for Big Oil, and a superstorm of righteous outrage over withheld storm aid, you'd be forgiven for not noticing the climate win that slipped in at the eleventh hour: a long-awaited extension of the wind energy Production Tax Credit, a federal incentive that has for many years been the bread and butter of the wind industry, providing $1 billion each year to keep wind competitive against heavily-subsidized fossil fuels.

Despite being a record-setting year for wind installations, 2012 was a nail-biter for many in the industry, who feared Congress would axe the credit and send the industry from boom to bust, as has happened several times in the past when the credit has not been extended. The industry's trade group was a clearinghouse for grim prognostications: Some 35,000 jobs lost and up to a ninety-percent drop in wind projects, should the credit not be passed. Even with the extension, the industry's financial backers were so spooked by last year's uncertainty that investments are almost sure to fall in 2013.

"We've effectively killed 2013 by waiting this long to extend [the PTC]," Jacob Susman, CEO of wind installer OwnEnergy, told me a few months ago.

And while the extension was an excuse for wind folks from Colorado to Iowa to Boston to pop an extra bottle of champagne, the industry ain't out of the woods yet: The recent extension is only for one year, which means the battle to wring money from Congress will need to be fought all over again in just a few months. Indeed, the complaint one hears most often from industry leaders is that the constant political kowtowing necessary to secure this essential tax credit makes it nearly impossible for the industry to secure long-term growth. That's very different from fossil fuels, whose benefits, as my colleague Andy Kroll points out, are "baked into the tax code."

But this extension comes with at least one big improvement: In the past, to secure the credit, wind projects had to be delivering power to the grid before the credit's expiration date at year's end. That led to a huge push to get projects up and running in the final months of 2012, but also threw up a barrier to any projects that got started too late. This version sets a lower bar: The credit is now available to any projects that break ground in 2013, giving everyone from turbine manufactorers to installers to investors much more breathing room on a realistic timescale, which David Roberts at Grist says is equivalent to extending the old version for two or three years.

The challenge for Big Wind this year will be to work with Congress to find ways to keep the industry competitive in the long term, while unleashing it from year-to-year political turmoil.

"The extension is a very important piece of legislation," industry researcher Matt Kaplan told the Financial Times. "The big question, though, is what comes next."

VIDEO: Drought, Floods, and One Giant Storm: The Year in Climate Insanity

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 9:10 AM PST

2012, the hottest year on record in the United States, has been a wild year for Climate Desk. We've scoped out coal-guzzling data centers; traipsed across New York City's solar-paneled rooftops; stepped through the ashes of Colorado's record-breaking wildfire season; mingled with drought-striken cattle; been awed by the North Dakota fracking boom; cruised down the shrinking Mississippi River; strained to hear through the climate silence; seen communities pick through debris left by Superstorm Sandy; and more.

Along the way, we've depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can't wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued…

To stay on top of the climate conversation, follow us on our website, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

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